Archive for December, 2010

Film Reviews!: Enter the Void

December 24, 2010

I woke up today still feeling off-kilter from the previous night’s endeavor.  After seeing Gaspar Noe’s Enter the Void one can only be so lucky as to call their disposition ‘slightly off-kilter.’  While I realize that every other critic has taken the opportunity to quip something along the lines of Noe’s work being an “assault,” it’s very hard to write anything adverse to this notion or even ancillary to it.  Simply put, Noe’s recent work is a difficult watch, and not strictly for its content, but rather, its style.

Noe’s 154-minute epic chronicling the AFTER-life of a Tokyo-based drug dealer maintains an unrelenting visual and audible affront on the audience.  With a constant, nagging strobe effect, Gaspar makes the gaudy neon glare of Tokyo all the more unwavering.  For what he clearly seeks to accomplish, it works, however, the methodology behind this choice remains ambiguous.  While I cannot champion unique editing and production concepts enough, Enter the Void utilizes techniques and forms that seem to be entirely antithetical to the story being told.  The general feeling becomes that Noe is simply recycling his favorite cinematic devices from past endeavors (i.e. Irreversible) that he feels comfortable with and that he is certain set him apart.  These cinematic constructs feel tacked on, not organic in and of themselves.  The story’s methodical, reflective, contemplative pace doesn’t really lend to the persistent annoyance of the strobe effect.  The strobing, in fact, typically took away from the story’s unfolding, as the audience is continually pulled out of the action onscreen and made cognizant of the visual barrage Gaspar is clearly perpetrating.  And while it can be argued that this was his end intent, one would think that Noe went to an awful lot of work in story building and production design only to purposefully distract and detract from the piece onscreen.

The performances are interesting from a technical standpoint as two of the three main characters are not actors in a traditional sense, and this film is their actual onscreen debut.  Oscar, through whom the entire story is told, presents almost no persona to grasp any semblance of character off of.   And while it can both be argued that he is constantly in a d drug-induced mental fog OR that NOE wanted the audience to be able to implant themselves as the main character, there are far too many personal moments in the film’s reflective story that require some sort of response from Oscar.  Big, ridiculous moments that deal with incest, loyalty, personal, psychological trauma, separation, loss, and love make this film far too intimate and individualized to argue that the audience should be able to implant as the character.  Oscar has far too much baggage and emotional investment in the story to merely serve as an empty canister for the audience.  Further, even if that was his goal, the audience cannot function well as their own hero when every element of their story is so sincerely drawn up for them.

Meanwhile, Alex, the other non-actor played by Cyril Roy, does a well-enough job to not merit any harsh criticism on his performance.  His point of view and desires are typically clear and without confusion, and he actually comes across making stronger decisions than Linda, (played by Paz de la Huerta) the single ‘formal’ actor in the entirety of the cast of main characters.  Much about de la Huerta’s performance leaves a great deal to be desired.  The audience knows next to nothing about her adolescence (roughly ages 5-18) and when she stops off the plane in Tokyo she seems very well-disciplined and put-together.  Within the course of what then seems like two days, she divulges into a train wreck of a human being.  And it’s very hard to find any semblance of compassion or care for the character.  Her constant disaffected countenance (whether supposedly elicited by a drug-induced stupor or by her now defunct sense of self-worth) never really amounts to any sort of tangible character progression or regression or even digression.  More or less, the character of Linda functionally becomes more of an object to be desired or cared for or missed by Oscar than she ever was an actual character.

The score is something else entirely as its pulsating, rhythmic undulations constantly underline the visual effects of Gaspar’s never-ending strobe.  Its entire goal is to further herald the sickeningly methodical pace of the film, and for that it certainly accomplishes what it needs.  The problem, again, is that this never seems to coincide with the STORY of the film.  At no point during the story’s evolution does it seem to fit to have a droning, cattywampus score playing alongside the action onscreen.  It acts as a deterrent to anything meshing onscreen and seems to be an element brought in from the past that acts more as a device than any sort of cinematic complement or even addition.

If there’s one thing that doesn’t seem entirely counter-intuitive to the entirety of the production it’s the cinematography.  Noe has an incredible eye for telling the most breath-taking story possible through multiple lens’, cranes, cameras, and angles.  The midnight Tokyo cityscape is simply electric through Gaspar’s lens with all its neon glory.  While the multiple crane shots do begin to become old hat in the film’s third hour, they do provide an incredible, sweeping sensation that adds to the post-mortem crux of the story.

One of the most incredible aspects of the camerawork, however, would have to be Gaspar’s mobilization of the audience’s gaze.  When Oscar is alive, the audience sees everything through his eyes…literally.  In a first-person format, Oscar IS the camera.  What he sees, we see directly, and nothing else.  Oscar’s blinks even register and play into the equation.  After Oscar’s demise, flashbacks are generally taken in third person, over Oscar’s shoulders.  And when not in flashback, we are back to what is most likely first person, riding with Oscar’s disembodied spirit through space and time, sans blinks.  It really is a fascinating technique and works well for what Noe seeks out of his screenplay.

Despite the incredible visuals, however, Noe simply can’t seem to get a hold on the feel of the movie.  One of the best examples I can think of is the very introduction to the film itself.  The flick opens with an incredibly fast-paced, manic, epic title sequence that readies the viewer for something so grand, so crazed, so frenzied, so berserk that the audience simply cannot wait to see what’s next.  This state of hyper-stimulation and aggressive display are then transitioned into an incredibly lax, languid moment in the script that does little to ever appropriately amp up.  And that’s the entirety of this effort, visuals and audio that tells the audience one thing while the story tells it another.

Score/Sound: 57/100

Screenplay/Story: 54/100

Performance/Direction: 32/100

Cinematography: 70/100

Overall: 50/100

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Film Reviews! Hereafter

December 22, 2010

Clint Eastwood has a long and storied professional history that spans across half a century and includes some of the most prolific titles of all time as well as some of the most memorable Oscar contenders of the last ten years.  His latest flick, Hereafter, is certainly not one of those aforementioned movies.

Hereafter is the story of a retired psychic (Matt Damon) recently laid off of his  job in construction, just looking to find his place in the world while being hounded with a what he considers a psychic ‘curse’ that keeps him withdrawn and alone.  His brother (played by an alarmingly aged Jay Mohr) looks to drag him back into the psychic reading game in order to best ‘help people’ (see: make money).  Auxiliary stories revolve around a twin who desperately wants to reconnect with his deceased brother and a news anchor who experiences a touch of the afterlife after surviving a near-death experience.

The synopsis above does a good job of translating precisely what the major errors are within the film.  A lot technically happens, in Hereafter, but very little actually comes of any of it and said outcomes that do come to fruition feel forced, juxtaposed, and flaccid.  Eastwood has chosen a story that really has very little to tell, with three central characters who do little more than awkwardly bounce against one another.  By film’s end, you are left feeling unsatisfied, wishing that simply ONE of the three stories had some sort of substance to dig into.  Sadly, though, each character truly does have the propensity to tell their own, individual, 90-minute story, this is just a classic case of a screenwriter with too much to say ultimately saying nothing.

Matt Damon’s George Lonegan is the kind of tortured, hapless hero that knows the extent of his own abilities and simply cannot overcome the fears that he has associated with them.  While he’s certainly knowledgeable enough to know the positive aspects of his psychic craft, he also has clearly broken his fair share of human beings down by bringing up the past in ways they simply were not ready for.  The first girl that we see him get close to simply leaves in an emotional whirlwind after George relates a message sent to her from a relative who was too “touchy” in her past.  And while much is done to address Damon’s character’s clearly solitary, lone existence, it is the only piece of substantial acting in the entirety of the piece.  The other two main characters, young, now lone twin, Jason, played by twins Frankie and George McLaren and French newscaster, Marie, played by Cecile De France give two of the weakest performances I have seen in a theatrical release in quite some time.  They come to their roles without almost zero emotional investment and very little, if any sincere point of view.  Either the editing left out insurmountable chunks of dialogue which better flesh out these characters, or Clint Eastwood really knows how to sink a movie through a miserable supporting cast.

The score is another point of incredible weakness that merits speaking to.  Every single note that is played to underscore an action, mood, or tone in the film actually managed to bristle me out of my seat and call attention to itself.  I could not come across a single moment when I felt that the tone of the score even mirrored, let alone added to, the tone of the film.  The underlying trend seemed to be to actually put in musical underscores that were antithetical to the production progressing onscreen.  Horrible, cheesy, elevator muzak-ish guitar solos would wail as though an 80’s hair metal band was coming to the middle of their hit love ballad during the few poignant moments of the movie.  Casual outdoor establishing shots would be sprinkled with upbeat, strange, artificial musical musings that have ZERO correlation to one another.  The fact that any money was spent on this arrangement at all and it wasn’t simply composed using freesound.com ten minutes before the first screening is a testament to Hollywood’s oftentimes incompetence.

As mentioned before, the screenplay to this mess is equally frightful, and I assume acts as the cornerstone to the rest of the mess that this film becomes.  I can only assume that Eastwood and Damon both saw the potential for a sweeping character piece in this little movie.  Of course, that’s me being positive.  What probably happened was that Eastwood saw an easy paycheck and after a twenty minute read-through of the script decided that he may even be able to milk some critical acclaim out of this cow with his directing magic.  Damon, not even reading the script, but seeing Eastwood’s name attached, signed on blind, and we were given this mess.  I think the best word to sum up this movie would have to be “jilted.”  Yeah.  “Jilted.”

Score/Sound: 32/100

Screenplay/Story: 45/100

Performance/Direction: 48/100

Cinematography: 55/100

Overall: 39/100

Film Reviews!: Bronson

December 17, 2010

Bronson tries to do everything a biopic should do, and then some.  It looks to portray its subject’s life in a unique, personal fashion toying with conventions, tone, and pacing to create a story thread true to its central character.  And while, at times, the biopic manages to do exactly that with a starved, exasperated, solitary pacing, this very same element also manages to grind the film to a halt at times and forces the audience to linger on moments and points in the criminal’s life that we simply could have done without.

Granted, the biopic of a man who has spent 34 years in prison, 30 of which were spent in solitary confinement, would be hard to tell.  However, there are certainly fantastical elements to Michael Peterson’s (the titular character’s birth name) life that would merit a 90 minute feature.  Unfortunately, director Nicolas Refn, doesn’t choose to dote on those aspects.  It’s almost as if he’s afraid to let any moment of character or excitement develop for longer than a short spat of screen time.  What he may have been trying to produce were bigger moments, larger flashes in the pan, if you will, amongst the sea of monotony that coursed through Bronson’s life.  The finished product, however, eventually comes across as uncharacteristically languid and tedious by film’s end.  While we spend plenty of time seeing Peterson shipped from prison to prison, rotting away as time transpires, Refn neglects to show instances of the man’s life that the audience would love to see that are merely broached.  The robbery Peterson commits at the age of 19 which catalyzes his stint in the “hotel” as he calls it, of prison.  Also, Bronson’s 69 day stint on the outside where he allegedly took to streetfighting and fell in love with a stripper could have become, at the very least, a bit more fleshed out, if for nothing else, to delve into a few other character’s psyche.  However, maybe that would have taken away from the solidarity of Bronson’s own mental state, I’m really not sure, but that’s what one comes away with after this film.  Rather than a sincere semblance of what the director was looking for, the audience comes away feeling a bit exhausted and listless.  Even Bronson’s prison riot he organized where he earned the title of “Her majesty’s most expensive prisoner” is glazed over with actual news footage that probably entails thirty seconds of screen time.  Glossed over with a few phrases on fame.  Much time feels wasted and the overarching wish of the theatre goer is that we could have illuminated certain elements while keeping others abbreviated.

All things considered, however, Bronson does do certain things well, mostly by taking chances.  The theatrical style in which the story is told does MUCH to alleviate the audience’s job of staying engaged with the story.  Without the innovative, first-person, fourth-wall-breaking, vaudevillian style in which Bronson tells his tale to the crowd, I believe that this movie would have become borderline unwatchable.  Not for any extraordinary circumstances, but quite the opposite, it would have ground to a halt in the first half.  Also, much can be said for Tom Hardy’s pitch-perfect over-the-top, grandiose performance as a performer without anything to really say to his audience.  Bronson speaks to wanting fame multiple times in the flick and only finds solace in violence and mayhem.  Hardy’s rendition of a praise-desiring circus act relying on battle to merit a response from the British populace additionally saves the film from what would have surely been eventual ruin had a weaker actor been granted the part. Further, the soundtrack to the film does MUCH to bring the story to life.  Primarily consisting of electronica and classical scores, the audible element of the film does mesh perfectly with what Refn has captured onscreen, and does much to accentuate the action.  One of my favorite flourishes is during a fight scene when the synths from the electric undercurrent of the score actually sync up to individual punches Bronson lands on his opponents.  If the whole movie was categorized by moments of character like this, it would have been a completely different (i.e. better) experience.

While describing things this film does right, one simply must condone its cinematography.  One of the key elements of the film that gave you a strikingly adroit insight into the mind of the man, the look of the film managed to give you a claustrophobic, caged sense to the entirety of the story, only ever to be saved by Bronson himself.  The visual aesthetic of the film keeps you boxed into Bronson’s world, devoid of much outlet, left only to be led and held by the man whose mind you’ve entered.  Additionally, certain shots bring so much more to the story than an individual character ever could.  One of the first shots in the insane asylum, for example, contains a long dolly shot in which we follow one inmate as he walks the length of the recreational area.  He passes Bronson, who is incredibly close to frame, so close that one could easily be forgiven for not noticing him, stops a few feet past, turns, and returns to a drug-addled Bronson who is clearly out of his mind.  It’s a simple tracking shot, but the actor’s placement, the shot’s pacing, and the reveals that the shot entails brings so very much to light as to the personality of the film itself.

Unfortunately, there are too few times in which these moments remind us of why we are watching this movie to begin with.  While I certainly acquiesce that Refn may very well have been looking to build the atmosphere of the story around Bronson’s primarily caged life, the end result simply leaves us wanting more, and not in terms of more of the same, but rather in the scope of more from the film itself.

Performances: 80

Cinematography/Aesthetics: 79

Score: 78

Script: 60

Overall:62

Film Reviews! Splice

December 16, 2010

With every fiber of my being I wanted to write this review objectively.  I wanted to use the most academic cinematic language possible and write candidly, but without bias or humor, on the film at hand.  Unfortunately, I find now that I simply cannot do that.  Splice is a movie that attempts to do so much in such a short amount of time.  And while certain aspects of the film actually shine through rather nicely and create a seamless image at times on screen, nothing can truly buoy the absurdly fluctuating tone of the film and the insane character development and plot progression.

I think my biggest grievance is with the fact that splice takes itself deadly seriously.  There are no allusions to meta-cinema or the creature horror genre to which this film primarily looks to occupy.  Which means that what occurs onscreen should either buy in to some semblance of formatted pacing, or otherwise create its own.  Splice rides a pacing and plot structure that comes across as strongly traditional.  Time and events occur in what is clearly modern day, devoid of variations.  And yet, the two main characters of Clive (Adrien Brody) and Elsa (Sarah Polley) have absolutely NO semblance of consistency or morale of any kind.  These two characters go through so many internal, emotional transformations that it’s nearly impossible to get a grasp of who the hell they are.  Adrien Brody goes from being against the idea of splicing human and animal DNA, to catalyzing the experiment itself, to being weary of the product of the experiment, to trying to murder the product, to feeling sympathy for it, to feeling fatherly to it, to feeling seduced and sexually attracted to it, to murdering it.  In the course of a film under two hours.  And Sarah Polley’s character’s progression is not much better.  Within the course of ten minutes, Polley goes from being the ever-loving mother to the creature, to carelessly dissecting the being and playing with its genetic code.  Of course there are specific lines delivered throughout the film that are intended to give the audience SOME frame of reference to these inane mood swings, but they literally consist of Adrien Brody lecturing his wife about how the experiment has gotten out of hand and is no longer about ‘science,’ which helps launch Polley into a cold, thoughtless surgeon.  She operates on her own daughter/creature/porpoise/thing after it kills a cat.  Ridiculous doesn’t halfway describe the inconsistencies of tone.

Further, the creature itself, Dren, is a curious amalgamation of nothing at all.  Starting out as a highly intelligent and fast-developing creature with a penchant for coloring and playing with words, by film’s end the character has become a vampire-demon that can fly, use a scorpion tail, run with the speed of a gazelle, breathe both underwater and on land, shoot laser beams out of its eyes, and teleport through time.  Granted, I may have added those last two in, I can’t even remember anymore.  Anyway, the character seems to go completely feral rather than taking the intellectual high road (At one point it spells out the word, ‘Tedious,’ for the love of Ray Harryhausen).  During the scene’s climax, after Dren has metamorphised into a male, it actually speaks for the first time as it is raping Sarah Polley, its mother (take a second to re-read that last statement, then take another second, and read it again).  It says, “Inside you,” in a sickening, deep reference to an earlier part of the film.  But the point I’m trying to make is that the first phrase this creature says despite its clearly adept vocabulary, is an inuendo for rape and procreation.  It’s absolutely mind-boggling.

While I could go on and on about the awful up-and-down, backwards-and-forwards tone of this film and the written inconsistencies that abound, I must comment on certain things that worked really well.  First and foremost, I applaud anyone who’s willing to step into this genre’s territory and make something big, and difficult, and different, like director Vincenzo Natali chose to.  It’s very hard to do a work in this realm and it’s very easy to step off and work on lighter fare, or even, choose to not take your content seriously, almost creating a farce in the meta-theatrical realm.  Additionally, while always being the first to jump on the “CGI SUCKS” bandwagon, I will be the first to happily admit, the CGI in this film looked incredibly seamless.  The creature, Dren’s, legs were perfectly animated and never gave me the impression that I wasn’t looking at something tangible.  Dren’s face, as well, both young and older, came across as perfectly legit, never feeling produced or obviously added in.  Everything felt very honest, very physical.  And yet, so little of the monster was.  Watching the behind the scenes footage, it became apparent that the only part of Dren that was always the actress was her torso, and even then, the added things on, like a tail and wings.  It gave me great hope in the future for effects and CG work, which was something this film needed to be at all redeemable.

Overall I respect the efforts that were taken and the film certainly never fails to keep you entertained.  As far as quality spectacle, however, Splice falls quite short.  The performances are barely above average and the story just cannot be taken seriously.  The key to making sci-fi or horror or any fantastical genre work is to either establish strong character work or establish your tone and pacing and keep it within some realm of consistency or fabricate a framework of absurdism.  Splice doesn’t do any of these things well and instead opts to do all of these things poorly.

Performances: 64/100

Cinematography/Aesthetics: 90/100

Score: 50/100

Script: 28/100

Overall: 42/100